Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

1992 was a watershed year for American television.
That year the cable channel MTV began airing a program called The Real World.
The cast members, all eighteen to twenty-five, were chosen by audition
to live in a house with six other strangers
for several months at a time,
while cameras monitored their every move.
The best and most dramatic moments were edited, spliced together,
and aired in hour-long segments for the entertainment of viewers,
mostly also aged eighteen through twenty-five.
Largely credited with starting the genre of reality TV,
The Real World still airs to this day,
and it is credited by some with allowing people to ‘get real’
with topics such as sexuality, religion and politics, and prejudice.

One wonders how slapping seven strangers
into a house which they don’t pay for,
giving them trips to exotic places which they don’t pay for,
and recording their every move for an eager audience
approximates the real world.
But for some reason, the show was a hit,
perhaps telling us less about the actors and more about the audience,
perhaps telling us about ourselves.

From The Real World, we were given plenty more opportunities
to watch other people’s lives and comment on them to our families and friends.
Who was more at fault, Jon or Kate?
Was it right for them to be putting their kids on TV all the time?
Who should be voted off the island or exiled from the house,
and who should pack his knives and go home?
With the coming of text messaging,
reality TV producers learned the revenue potential of giving us a vote.
Who should advance to the next round?
You decide, America!

Some of you or even most of you may not watch these kind of shows.
But from the fact that they are produced and shown,
we can learn something about the world we inhabit.
It is a world that loves drama, loves competition;
it loves to cast people into two categories: winner and loser;
it believes that things are better
when there is less social convention and more ‘honesty.’
It loves to judge and it loves even more
when there is an opportunity to participate in judgment.

Is this the ‘real world?’
Do these television shows depict for us how the world ‘really’ is?
Or is there another reality beyond the drama and the backbiting
and the conspicuous consumption and the product placement
and the survival of the fittest?

We Christians are often accused of refusing to live ‘in the real world.’
But it was not only recently, but fifteen hundred years ago
that this saying was attributed to St Antony the Great:
‘A time is coming when men will go mad,
and when they see someone who is not mad,
they will attack him, saying, "You are mad; you are not like us."
Is it not madness when people agree to live their lives for other’s entertainment?
Is it not madness when we cannot be bothered with human trafficking
but are obsessed with Thursday’s TV lineup?
Is it not madness when our desire for cheap stuff
outweighs our desire to give thanks?
Do we not have our own personal madnesses,
our addictions, some of them trivial, some of them not;
our fantasies, our escapes from reality,
our ways of controlling our realities so that nothing uncomfortable will happen to us?
If this is the real world, there is reason to throw up our hands in despair.

But in opposition to all of this,
Advent announces the coming of the real world.
The real world is wholly different from the so-called ‘real world.’
The real world is the one where God is judge and no other,
and his judgment is tempered with mercy.
It is the world where conflict gives way to community;
where swords are beaten into plowshares
and nations do not go to war against each other any more.

Isaiah says of this world:
‘In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains…
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and walk in his paths.’

This world is not the present world,
nor can we make it the present world by our efforts.
Some preachers act as if the world’s problems all could be solved
if they could simply make their own congregations feel guilty enough.
But we are called to walk in the present as if the future was certain,
as if the world that was coming is the real world now,
as Isaiah calls to the house of Jacob,
‘Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!’

Amidst the overindulgence and the empty festivity
and the forced cheer and the frenetic pace
of this ‘Christmas season,’
we who call ourselves by the name of Christ,
who will celebrate the ‘Christ mass’ on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day,
we are called to be Advent people,
looking beyond this present world
to the world to come.
We are called to live the life of the world to come
even as we live in this world.
We are called to a life of self-control, as St Paul writes:
we are called to lay aside the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light.
We hear Jesus’ call to be ready for his coming.
This does not mean to stockpile canned food
or to put our trust in every crackpot with the date of the Rapture;
neither does it mean to have everything ready for your holiday celebrations.
It means to live now as if God was present;
and of course he is present.
To be ready for his coming is to live in his presence.

How can we do this while we live in the world?
For certainly we love this world of ours,
with all its electric lights and
with its beautiful holiday traditions,
its frantic and fumbling searching after joy,
and its nuggets of true love buried under the dirt and dust.
To be ready for Christ’s coming is to understand
that Christ died for this world, the real world,
that he longs to transform the entire creation,
that he longs for us to yield to him
and receive the love that he so fervently desires for us.
It is this love that by the power of the Holy Spirit
was made incarnate of the virgin Mary and was made man.
It is this love that will come again to transform the world
and grace it with God’s reality,
a reality that comes into our lives now by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us walk in the light of the LORD,
who was, and who is, and who is to come.